Guest Post: Rosemary Avance, “Why in the world would a non-Mormon study the Church, anyway?”

By September 12, 2012

Rosemary Avance is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania?s Annenberg School for Communication where she studies the intersection of religion, culture, and the media.  She is currently the recipient of the Eccles Mormon Studies Fellowship at the University of Utah?s Tanner Humanities Center.  She is spending the year in residence in Salt Lake City, researching and writing her dissertation on modern Mormon identities.

I?m so pleased to be guest posting here at JI?one of my favorite blogs and an important source for keeping up with modern Mormon identities.  My dissertation is on just that topic: how Mormons today negotiate their identities, and particularly how the internet plays a role in the articulation of various heterodoxies.  I?ve been hesitant to comment or post here and elsewhere in the bloggernacle because my research tracks, in part, representations of Mormonism in real time?so contributing to those representations by offering my ?take? threatens to, essentially, muddy my data.  Despite all the blogs, message boards, and Facebook pages, it turns out that Mormondom online is actually quite a small world.

But I?m pleased for the opportunity to introduce myself and my academic work, so my plan is to offer a bit of my theoretical orientation to LDS identities, explain my interest and background, and then maybe complain a bit.  Because the work I?m doing is ? at the moment?incredibly frustrating.

I?m a social constructivist, which means I view both religion and identity (and pretty much everything else) as social constructs that result from the discursive interplay of various social actors, each with varying amounts of normative authority or ?sway?.  That perspective occasionally gets me into trouble if left unexplained, so I?ve learned to parse it out a bit: Just because I say religion is socially constructed, doesn?t mean I think it?s not ?real?.  Of course it is.  (That?s why it?s called the ?social construction of reality?). As I told the good folks at FAIR when I presented there last month, there?s a ?Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? out there, but there?s no such thing as Mormonism as a monolithic category.  There are Mormonisms, negotiations of what it means to ?be? Mormon and what the experience of ?being? Mormon means, and they vary geographically, generationally, by gender, etc.

The point is that what any given religion/religious practice/religious symbol means is dependent on social attribution and context.  It?s a perspective based in Saussurean semiotics, and it highlights the tension between individual agency (I love how that?s both a social science and Mormon catchword) and institutional structure.  I think it?s remiss to suggest that the options are endless, that any kind of identity construct can be considered Mormon if the person identifies as Mormon?because identity is socially and not just individually constructed, there are limits to what counts, and those limits are what interest me.  How do people negotiate their identities within a canonic tradition?  How far is too far before the community reacts, or rejects?

Social construction helps explain why the meaning and embodiment of various religious identities change over time.  So my focus is on the ways that modern technological evolutions have altered the landscape of possibilities for Mormon identity expression (like JI!).  My dissertation will highlight the discourse strategies used by various communities to?essentially?construct community boundaries, establish new norms for belonging, and police membership.

I have always been interested in religion.  I was a member of a fundamentalist Christian church until my sophomore year in college, and after I left, I wanted to learn more about religious identity (I?ve heard it said that therapy is a cheaper alternative to graduate school, but apparently I got the memo too late).  As a member of that church, I had faithfully followed its behavioral edicts including, but decidedly not limited to, wearing ankle-length skirts, long hair, no jewelry, and no makeup?details I share to make the point that I was a visible religious minority, and had years? experience of what it?s like to be judged and discriminated against for that identity.  When I began graduate school I planned to study media representations of religious practitioners, convinced that the media hold much of the blame for society?s intolerance of religious difference (I?m still pretty convinced of that).  This was back when FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs? Texas compound, Yearning for Zion Ranch, was being raided on allegations of child sexual abuse in 2008, and I wanted to think about how people like the fundamentalists are represented and explained by secular media sources.

As I studied communication and cultural studies, I decided my real interest is in how religious folk represent and explain themselves: how they push back against popular representations, against even the scripts provided by their religious organizations, to craft a meaningful identity.   Above all else, I wanted to know how they make sense of it and explain it to themselves and to others; what narrative strategies they use to explain, for instance, religious doctrines that they find confusing or even distasteful.

My husband was brought up in a Mormon household, but chose to stop attending in college.  We met almost fifteen years later.  Much of his family was still active in the Church, and someone in his family (I assume) updates the missionaries on his address each time it changes, so that the early days of our marriage?in our first apartment, then a home, before and after the birth of our first child?were characterized by the occasional knock on the door by white-shirted teenagers asking for my husband by name.  He didn?t consider himself LDS and didn?t want to entertain the missionaries, but I was a little intrigued by the whole idea of these young ?Elders?, and continually invited them back. I baked them pumpkin bread, invited them to dinner.  I did some of the lessons in Tulsa, then when we moved to Philadelphia for graduate school, we got a whole new pair (this time a wonderful retired couple from Provo) and I did the entire series of lessons with them. They brought along young married couples from the local ward, who invited us into their homes for meals and also to various ward events (women?s general conference, a Christmas party and chili bake off). Additionally, my in-laws purchased subscriptions to LDS magazines for my family (including my toddler daughter), so the flow of LDS information was virtually nonstop at this time.  This was also when I was getting my feet wet in cultural studies, so my choice to eventually focus on Mormon identity seemed natural? to me.

But here?s where the frustration comes from.

I?ve been surprised by the demand for justification for my interest in Mormonism.  Obviously members of the Church have been socialized to expect persecution and many have experienced it firsthand.  They often want to know whether I?m sympathetic or antagonistic so they can judge my work accordingly and/or chose whether to take part as participants (fair enough).  Not infrequently, because I am genuinely not antagonistic toward the Church, I get the sense that my interest in the Church is interpreted by the faithful as a reflection of a seed planted about the Gospel.  My academic study becomes an ?investigation? of another sort.  These believers then do their darnedest to win me over, which means the data I collect is exceptionally rose-colored and reflects the very best things about Mormonism and shades over the rougher parts.

Still, the demands for justification aren?t just from faithful Mormons.  Some of my research deals with former (ex-) Mormons, and they too want to know why I study Mormonism.  They assume that I approach the Church as a critic, and this too shades the data I?m able to collect.  Even my colleagues?Jewish, secular, agnostic, you-name-it, find it interesting and slightly odd that I?d study Mormonism without a dog in the fight, so to speak.

A couple of months ago on my blog, I very briefly pondered the reasons why people question outsiders studying Mormonism in different ways than, say, my advisor who studies Hinduism, or another mentor who studies black Hebrews (   I?ve mostly resigned myself to what?s become a fact of life for me, but wonder if JI readers have suggestions for how to represent my own work in ways that might improve the quality of my data.  Like everything else, I?m convinced it all comes down to representation.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I wonder if the context of your discussions could influence the information you’re gleaning? If you’re having these talks in your home it comes across as personal interest, not professional. If you gather info online and in the process mention that you’ve had missionary discussions, that’s another cue to the LDS culture that this is a personal interest, not professional. Mormons seem to develop a skill to pick up the subtle cues which help us identify where someone stands. Although you have some personal interest you may have to leave that out when gleaning professional info.

    There is also the idea that someone cannot be lukewarm when it comes to the gospel, they are either for us or against us. While life is more subtle than that, it’s a human tendency to seek out and label definitively.

    Comment by Jendoop — September 12, 2012 @ 8:18 am

  2. Thanks for a fascinating and informative post, Rosemary. Your research intrigues me on a number of levels, especially because I have spent a fair amount of time studying the conversion narratives of early Mormons and how they constructed and shaped Mormonism(s). I’ve also more recently researched what you might call the de-conversion narratives of those who left Mormonism (as well as those who almost joined but in the end chose not to). I’d imagine there are some interesting comparisons and contrasts that could be made between our respective Mormon subjects, separated by 170-180 years.

    Perhaps it is the disciplinary differences at play, but can you explain a bit more what you mean by “improv[ing] the quality of [your] data”? It seems to me that what you’ve laid out in this post—your recognition and consideration of the ways in which the individual aims of Mormons and ex-Mormons in speaking to you and answering your research questions affects the stories they tell and the religious identities they construct—is all the “represent[ing] of your work that needs to be done to explain your data.

    Comment by Christopher — September 12, 2012 @ 8:41 am

  3. Are you doing coursework in ‘qualitative methods’? Seems like that might help. It sounds like your instruments need some work and internal/external validation. this is of course the problem with anthropology generally, that so much of the view depends on the instrument. in general if you don’t trust your instruments, do some careful methodological revisions in the instruments. this problem of the observation changing the event is common. i don’t think you’ll magically change Mormons’ responses to investigation.
    You might also look at mining oral history collections like the one at Claremont under Claudia Bushman.

    Comment by smb — September 12, 2012 @ 8:42 am

  4. Rosemary — I am come from a different disciplinary background that is suspicious of the possibility that you can ever get data that is uninfluenced by your background. Why not reflect in your work about the way that your identity influenced the data you were able to collect. Surely, the fact that you are only receiving the very rosiest of interpretations matters. Isn’t that part of the way that Mormons are constructing themselves?

    Honestly, I think the only way that you are going to be able to get people to talk about the difficulties they have had within their faith or to present a non-rosy view of their experiences is through forming individual relationships that last. In “Notes on a Balinese Cockfight,” Clifford Geertz mentions that he was viewed as a nonentity until he attended a cockfight and ran away when the cops came to break it up. His decision to run rather than pull out his academic credentials or rely upon his whiteness brought him into the community and allowed him to see things he otherwise wouldn’t have. I think you need to have your “Balinese Cockfight” moment for each individual you study. Also, are you attending a Mormon ward on a regular basis? This summer, I participated in a women’s studies workshop at Michigan where people from a variety of backgrounds workshopped their dissertations. One of the things that the leader of the workshop suggested to one of the sociologists was that she reduce the number of nonprofits she was studying so that she could spend more time there and hang out in the break room. She told her that the chatter she heard in the breakroom would be different than the story she was given in interviews. I think the same would be true for you. What you hear in interviews is always going to be rosy. People want to present their faith in the best possible light especially if what they say is going to influence its public depiction. What you hear in the bathroom or as mothers drop their kids off at primary is going to matter. Marie Griffith’s book “God’s Daughters” might be a useful resource for you. She talks about her experiences studying a conservative religious group she wasn’t a part of.

    Finally, my disciplinary background makes me skeptical of phrases like “without having a dog in the fight.” Although you may not be openly antagonistic towards Mormonism and aren’t a believer, there’s a reason why you study it and find it interesting. Everyone has a dog in the fight, or else they wouldn’t study what they do. I find often people find those reasons fascinating and are more willing to share parts of themselves if you share part of yourself first by sharing why you study Mormonism.

    Comment by Amanda — September 12, 2012 @ 8:51 am

  5. First, I must say that I am thrilled that “Deep Play” just got a mention on this blog (kudos Amanda). I must say that I can relate to Rosemary in many ways. I am also studying Mormonism for my PhD and do not have a dog in the fight either. When I arrived to Durham to study with Douglas Davies, I experienced just a small taste of what many Mormons probably endure almost daily – namely, a bit of skepticism and persecution. Why? It seems that most of the other PhD students had already gotten word that I was coming before I had even arrived, and there conclusion based on my proposed research was that I must be a member of the LDS church. Based on this, many of them literally hesitated to engage in conversations with me. Invariably, when I told them that I was not, nor had I ever been, a Mormon; responses turned from borderline indignant to incredulous that I would desire to study a group without having reason to embrace its precepts personally or actively decry them. Why is this? Just like Rosemary, I am somewhat confused by the fact that non-Hindus may specialize in eastern religions, or non-Jews often become Hebrew scholars; yet non-Mormons are ostensibly bewildering to all if they study Mormonism. I offer no further insights, only commiseration.

    Comment by Adamjpowell — September 12, 2012 @ 9:16 am

  6. This. Non-Mormons don’t undestand why I study Mormons, and Mormons don’t understand why I’m not Mormon yet. (Especially when they ask me if I’ve prayed over the Book of Mormon yet, and I say yes, and that nothing happened. That effectively shuts down the conversation.)

    But no insights here either, I too just wanted to commiserate. I’ve been an outsider for most of my life so that role fits me quite well, and since my research isn’t done through interviews but is more text-based, it doesn’t hamper it too much.

    Also, your research sounds absolutely fascinating and I’d love to hear more.

    Comment by Saskia — September 12, 2012 @ 9:40 am

  7. So… I want to respond to claims that people don’t look askance at non-Jews who studying Judaism or non-Hindus studying Hinduism. There are first of all very few non-Jews doing Jewish history, and those who do are often looked at as though they were slightly odd beasts. There is a joke in my department that one of my colleagues who studies Russian Jews will convert to Judaism and I will convert to Mormonism and all be right with the world. Such things are also not limited to people studying a religion that is not their own. I have a friend who is a liberal evangelical Christian who studies missionary work in Africa. She is constantly asked about her own religious commitments.

    Nor are such questions limited to religious groups. I have a friend who is Latino who was asked when he told his undergrad advisor he wanted to study African American women, “but… I thought you were Mexican. Are you actually black?” Another Latina friend gets funny looks when she tells people she studies Turkish immigration in France. The assumption is that both should be doing Latin@ history. Furthermore, when it comes to questions about ethnicity, there are racial politics involved. White people are assumed to be able to study anything, any place, any time, but people of color are often expected to study their own racial group. In some situations, there are also colonial politics involved. Any American studying Middle Eastern, Pacific Islander, or Native American history should expect to encounter hostility and needs to be cognizant of why that hostility exists. Anthropologists in particular have a long history of studying communities, benefiting from them in terms of books published and academic positions received, and then giving nothing to the community in return.

    Non-Mormon scholars studying Mormonism should particularly pay attention to the last one. Although Mormons aren’t a colonized people, they are a people who are routinely mocked in the media and frequent exposes published about them. They also have a history of violence and expulsion. I think that suspicion of academics on the part of Mormons is to some extent justified. No one likes to be the subject of someone else’s research study. As a non-Mormon scholar, I try to be cognizant of my place within the community and I try to be involved in it to demonstrate that this isn’t just a dissertation to me and I care deeply about the people involved. In his book “Native Men Remade,” Ty Tengan has a scene in which he encounters another anthropologist studying masculinity among native Hawaiians. As a native Hawaiian, he feels deeply uncomfortable when he encounters this white man doing what he does. It reminds him of the politics of his discipline. I am historian, and as a result, am theoretically somewhat removed from the politics of anthropology, but I always keep Tengan’s description of his experience in the back of my mind. Unlike Tengan, I will never be an insider doing insider work, but I also don’t want to be that white anthropologist studying native Hawaiians or in this case Mormons without being mindful of the politics of my work and the effect they could have on the Mormon community.

    Comment by Amanda — September 12, 2012 @ 10:07 am

  8. These are fantastic insights and much appreciated. I do acknowledge that my role will always color the responses I receive, and that there isn’t much I can do to eliminate that kind of response bias. Its absolutely right that this is all data, its all part of how “Mormons construct themselves”– but that doesn’t stop it from being frustrating when a firm wall is erected and I’m placed squarely outside it. Christopher (#2), by “quality of data” I mean a number of things. On the strictest levels, this affects whether people participate in my research at all, and so biases the data in favor of heterodox and former Mormons. Traditional, “orthodox” Mormons simply don’t want to participate as frequently or as in depth as those who think I may be more sympathetic because of my non-Mormon status. “Orthodox” Mormon males in particular are most likely to either outright refuse, or effectively say no by not responding to further communications after the initial agreement. (I also recognize that gender plays into this in other, complex ways). But by “quality” of data, I also mean willingness to answer certain types of questions. I do recognize that what might be seen as “canned” answers are a narrative strategy of value in their own right. Re: snb (#3), my coursework is complete and did include qualitative methods, ethnographic methods, and quantitative methods (less valuable here). Because my work is critical-cultural/interpretive, I don’t use a traditional social science instrument. I do administer surveys when I have too many respondents to do interviews, but generally I do open-ended interviewing that is based on storytelling and narrative rather than set questionnaires. So each “instrument” is tailored to the respondent. Re Amanda (7), of course there are all kinds of politics involved in the academic project. My point was that the traditional anthropological was predicated on outsiders studying “Others”, and when others in my discipline follow that model, its considered completely acceptable. I think there are complicated reasons why Mormonism in particular is seen as more off-limits to this kind of research, at least to those in my area of study.

    Comment by Rosemary — September 12, 2012 @ 10:40 am

  9. Excellent post and insightful comments. Thanks all around. Even though Jewish studies is not really my area, some of my wife’s friends/professors are confused but happy that I, a non-Jew, would choose to study Hebrew and such.

    Comment by Ben S — September 12, 2012 @ 11:35 am

  10. A fantastic discussion. Thanks, Rosemary, for the thoughtful post, as well as all the commenters.

    I do think it is interesting how we position ourselves to our subject matter–or, more importantly, how we interpret how others understand our position to our subject matter. As a Mormon who dabbles in Mormon history, I constantly fear that I will not be seen as credible to academics as a non-Mormon who studies Mormon history. This helps to show that it is not an easy binary, and that there are opposing perceptions throughout this run-around game.

    Comment by Ben P — September 12, 2012 @ 11:44 am

  11. An elevator pitch-version of what you’ve shared here would likely have a positive influence on those research subjects who are susceptible to influence. I come from a different academic background, but I’m assuming you’d also want to present the same pitch, to both those hesitant to share openly and those who start off sharing openly, to maintain external validity. What you’ve shared here would certainly set me at ease.

    I’d be curious if there would be subjects who couldn’t be persuaded regardless of what you said – not because of your or your explanation, but because of a strong attachment to the topic and it’s defense.

    Comment by Kurt — September 12, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

  12. I enjoy studying other religions, myself, and have felt honored a couple of times when their adherents have asked if I am a member of that faith tradition. In many ways, I do consider myself a Roman Catholic, an Evangelical, a Jew, a Muslim, among other things. Perhaps not through rites and rituals or being counted as a member, but at least through being a friend to those traditions and striving to understand and sometimes seeing the universe through those worldviews. I see my friends who are genuinely interested and friendly towards Mormonism, my home faith, the same way. I consider them honorary Mormons. And frankly as “Mormons” who can speak more honestly and authentically because they need not fear losing a temple recommend, being excommunicated, or being isolated for unpopular opinions by rank and file Mormons.

    Comment by DavidH — September 12, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

  13. Thanks for the great post. As a non-Mormon studying Mormonism, I have continually found myself in the interesting position of explaining tenets of the religion, its history, and clearing up many inacurracies to other non-Mormons. This has exponentially increased since Romney’s first run for president in 2008.

    Also being a non-Mormon presenting to both non-Mormon and Mormon audiences at conferences has been an educational experience. I was at a smaller, regional, religious studies conference a few years ago and was surprised by the number of questions I received about how polygamist couples lived (this was not the focus of my talk.) Someone even asked if I had seen the show “Big Love.” The show in the last question has been replaced by “Sister-wives” or the Book of Mormon musical. Some people were willing to engage with my content on an academic level whereas it was obvious that many others could not get past what they thought they knew about the religion.
    Of course, the dynamic and conversation changes at a conference like the MHA.

    Excellent post and thought-provoking comment thread!

    Comment by NatalieR — September 12, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

  14. Great post, Rosemary. Thank you!

    All I can say is that, as a non-Mormon, I’ve had many of the experiences that Saskia, Amanda, and NatalieR describe. My experience has been more with non-Mormons, and I’ve unfortunately gotten everything from bad jokes to bemusement to outright ridicule in response to my decision to study Mormons. Unfortunately, it seems that whether you’re inside or outside, there are still plenty of people — scholars included — who look askance at Mormonism as a scholarly subject.

    Comment by Cristine — September 12, 2012 @ 3:38 pm

  15. I feel a little out of my league with all you smart people, so hopefully my comment will be of some worth. Mormons are generally viewed by society, or at least certain segments of it, as being an acceptable target. It seems like people always have to have some group to ridicule. For a lot of people Mormons fill this role. For them, the idea of someone doing serious study of Mormonism is ridiculous because the caricature in their minds of Mormonism is defined by the fact that it cannot be taken seriously. My experience has been that a lot of ex-Mormons have bought into this mentality. They will assume that any Mormon who says they are doing serious research is just propaganda (see the response to Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling). We Mormons are quite aware the situation we are in. It isn’t horrible, but it is uncomfortable. Since anything we might say in our defense is automatically disregarded by large portions of society, we are at the mercy of non-Mormons who write about us. It makes sense that people would want to know if you’re a friend or not.

    Comment by mapman — September 12, 2012 @ 3:42 pm

  16. Rosemary, I quite enjoyed your presentation at the FAIR conference. Well done. Sorry for all the push back you get from various angles. If you ever want to interview me, I promise I won’t try to convert you.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — September 12, 2012 @ 9:20 pm

  17. A lovely discussion. Thanks, Rosemary. I just want to second everyone who has poured sympathy in response to your frustrations. I don’t envy but am so glad for viewpoints like yours. Geof Bowker has a nice phrase: Raw data is an oxymoron. A high five to Amanda for her point about the opportunity to give back to the community and for David’s point about each of us containing multiple identities. I think the two points come together: we can become part of what we study, and in the process become in part who we study, thanks to, not despite, the unbridgeable gaps that keep us apart. I don’t mean to promote multicultural difference, so much as to reflect on how *neat* it is to sometimes think–and to see in Rosemary’s work–that while differences don’t unite, they are held in common. Anyway, I don’t have any answers but appreciate the conversation.

    Comment by Ben Peters — September 13, 2012 @ 1:46 pm

  18. […] good folks over at Juvenile Instructor invited me to do a guest post on my research yesterday, so I took the opportunity to share some of the frustration I’ve been […]

    Pingback by My Juvenile Instructor Guest Post | Rosemary Avance — September 13, 2012 @ 4:45 pm

  19. A fascinating discussion. I know exactly what you are talking about. There is such a strong conversion (and PR) focus in the church that people often won’t say what they really think even with other Mormons. And many of us learn to suppress our own views routinely throughout our lives rather than to complain or cast the church in a bad light. I’ve observed that there is often an awkward moment when two Mormon families come together for dinner to see if someone will break out the first diet Coke. Or if it’s a Sunday dinner, there is at times some verification of whether the family changes out of church clothes. Some Mormons don’t want to be the unorthodox one at the gathering or to be seen for the more casual Mormon they are.

    This tendency to whitewash is also manifest in journal writing. A mission companion and I were writing in our journals one night after we had been in a profanity-laced screaming match in a field (that we were then laughing about). She couldn’t believe I would write about that in my journal. She said I shouldn’t because one day my kids would read that and they would know what kind of person I was, that I wasn’t good all the time. I said they’d probably figure it out anyway. Her comments might have been extreme, but I’m not sure they were. Nephi likewise self-justifies in the BOM. I remember in YW many girls expressing the idea that their future children or dead ancestors were watching them from the pre-existence. It’s a more personal extension of God seeing all, and personally, I think it’s more effective at curbing behaviour.

    I have also found Mormons to be extremely non-confrontational and going to great lengths to support leaders who are making really dumb-ass decisions rather than point out those flaws to that leader. I tend to agree that if you want to see Mormons with their hair down, you’ll have to catch them at the right moment – under stress and busy (which certainly happens), in the restroom, and so on.

    Comment by hawkgrrrl — September 13, 2012 @ 8:32 pm

  20. This is a great topic. No amazing insight here, just a nod from another non-Mormon doing Mormon studies. There’s more of us than you might think, and as the number grows, I think people’s comfort level will increase. The more Mormons see non-Mormons doing fair and serious academic work (and not exposes) and non-Mormon scholars see how much the study of Mormonism can bring to a range of disciplines, the easier the work will be.

    Comment by Airen — September 20, 2012 @ 6:56 pm


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